Barack Obama shocked the political world when he announced that he would not be taking government matching funds for this year’s presidential general election. John McCain was outraged when Obama refused to play. But Obama’s decision was the right one and here’s why.
Taxpayers should not be asked to subsidize campaigns. If someone chooses to run for president then they should be required to raise the necessary funds to see it through. Candidates for every other public office in America do it; why not candidates for president? In many cases, the amount of money raised is an indication of how broad your support is. Under the current public financing system, the general election costs taxpayers about $170 million.
There was a time when there was no public financing and the system seemed to work just fine. Can you imagine George Washington or Thomas Jefferson taking public money to run their campaigns? Believe it or not, the public financing system is only 32 years old. It was started in 1976 ostensibly as a way to level the playing field. Interestingly enough, none of the top-tier candidates in this year’s presidential primary took matching federal funds. They all opted out, including John McCain. Now McCain is crying “foul” over Obama’s decision not to take the money.
The public financing system is funded by that little box you check on your IRS form. Support has been declining since the early 1980s and now only about 8 percent of tax filers check the box to give $3 to the presidential funding system. Neither George W. Bush nor John Kerry accepted the matching funds in 2004 and Bush opted out in 2000. The system is another government boondoggle and needs to be abolished. Oh, but how are these candidates going to compete? The same way they’ve always competed, by raising their own money.
The problem comes when someone spends millions of his own dollars to launch attack ads against another candidate. Not having the resources to respond, the allegations begin to stick. There’s an easy solution to that. I do live endorsements on the radio. Each one of these clients goes through a thorough vetting by our radio station and by me. Once on the air, I’m subjected to all sorts of limitations on what I can and cannot say about the product. I have to be very careful with superlatives. If I say it’s the fastest Internet connection, it has to be the fastest. If I say a particular business has the lowest price on a certain product, it better be the lowest. In other words, I cannot lie to or mislead the public about any product or business. It’s just that simple.
The same truth-in-advertising standards should apply to political advertising. I’ve heard opponents to such a notion complain that you can’t limit free speech. Insisting that candidates tell the truth is not limiting free speech. Truth is the very essence of free speech. It doesn’t matter if a candidate has a truck-load of money, if he can’t lie about himself or his opponent then the public is not harmed. It’s the inability to respond to slanderous attacks that harm political candidates. Applying some standards of provability not only doesn’t damage the system, it improves it.
Instead, we’ve opted for a system that costs the taxpayers millions of dollars with little to no accountability. Ironically, it was McCain-Feingold that actually did limit free speech. Now McCain will have to abide by it as well as the spending limits from accepting matching funds. His very own bill may end his aspirations for the White House.
Phil Valentine is an author and nationally syndicated radio talk show host with Westwood One. For more of his commentary and articles, visit philvalentine.com.